NINE LIVES? WHEN IT COMES to Catwoman, that’s an absurdly conservative estimate.
The Empress of the Underworld. The Princess of Plunder. The Ruthless Queen of Roguery. Whatever the crown, she has survived across eight decades, a wily, slinky counterpoint to the grim crusade of Batman. Part foe, part ally, part lover, this whip-lashing kitty is as much a pop culture fixture as the Dark Knight himself. Two creatures of the night, locked in an endless, flesh-scarring dance through Gotham’s alleys.
People are fascinated by femme fatales and I think she’s aged gracefully over time
“She’s fabulous!” says Batman writer and artist Joelle Jones, responsible for one of the more striking modern takes on Selina Kyle. “People are fascinated by femme fatales and I think she’s aged gracefully over time – unlike some. If anything she continues to become more relevant a character as time goes on.”
Catwoman was part of the first wave of comic book icons, arriving in spring 1940 in Batman 1, an issue that also saw the debut of the Joker. Quite the incendiary package for a slim dime, not to mention the shrewdest of pocket-money investments.
“We needed a female nemesis to give the strip sex appeal, so we came up with a kind of female Batman,” remembered creator Bill Finger. “It was kind of the antithesis of a bat. Cats are hard to understand. They are as erratic as women are.”
The character may have been shaped by prevailing male attitudes but there were other inspirations too: Hollywood, for one. Just as Conrad Veidt in silent melodrama The Man Who Laughs influenced the ghoulish look of the Joker, Catwoman reincarnated the high glamour of Hedy Lamarr, with just a hint of Jean Harlow. As well as these monochrome bombshells, artist Bob Kane also paid tribute to his cousin, Ruth Steel. “He said he loved the way I looked,” she remembered in 2011, at the age of 96. “I was pleased, it was quite an honour.” One crucial wrinkle, however: “I don’t like cats.”
Introduced as “the slickest and prettiest jewel thief in the business”, Batman’s latest nemesis was originally known as the Cat. The term “cat burglar” was a relatively new one, first coined for the exploits of Arthur Edward Young, a legendarily agile housebreaker who operated in Streatham in the early years of the 20th century. Selina is presented to us as a bored socialite, enlivening her Gatsby-era existence of gowns and champers with some upmarket kleptomania. In her first appearance she targets a priceless emerald necklace, infiltrating a pleasure yacht with a series of crafty disguises. She’s already notorious – Batman declares he has “heard tales about the Cat before in the underworld!”
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The story ends with a foreshadowing of the enduring dynamic between the Cat and the Bat. “You and I – king and queen of crime!” purrs Selina, embracing the man in the cowl. “We’d make a great team!” Batman refuses, all firm jaw and sublimated Bat-stirrings. “Sorry,” he tells her. “Your proposition tempts me but we work on different sides of the law!”
Selina leaps overboard, seizing a chance for freedom. Robin rushes to follow but Batman knocks him aside, feigning clumsiness. “Oh well, she still had lovely eyes!” he sighs. “Maybe I’ll bump into her again sometime…”
The longing is clearly mutual. Another 1940 story sees Selina succumbing to a wistful moment in a getaway car. “I sort of wish the Batman was driving this car – and I were sitting beside him… and we were just another boy and girl out for a ride on a moonlight night. That would be sort of… of… nice!!”
She even has a soft spot for the Boy Wonder. In Batman 2 she pleads with the Joker to spare Robin’s life. Though she packs a gun she’s no killer. “Murder isn’t in the Catwoman’s heart,” says Batman in a 1954 story. “Sentiment is her weakness – and that’s why we’ll catch her the next time!” Even her ingenious death-traps contain convenient flaws that allow the Dynamic Duo to cheat a grisly fate. Holy psychological giveaway!
It takes a while for Catwoman to find her visual identity. She doesn’t wear a mask – or a special costume – in her first story but in Batman 3 she rocks a furry, bewhiskered cat’s head to hide her identity. Teamed with a yellow dress and red cape it gives her the look of someone prowling a pagan masked ball. Alison Goldfrapp would approve. By the late ’40s her look stabilises: purple cowl and dress, green cape. In 1947 she adds claw gloves that “enable her to climb like the feline creature for which she is named!”
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